Alistair Caldicott

Batting for Pakistan

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12 - A Very Short Walk in the Hindu Kush

I decided to take some exercise, but only after waiting for the early morning cold to well and truly melt away. It was a perfect, cloudless day. The sky was a flawless blue. A winding track of road climbed its way upwards out of Chitral, which felt more like a large village than an important district town.

I left behind me plenty of goats, ducks and chickens. Passing locals kept stopping me. Old men with pakol hats perched on their heads watched the world go by. There was not too much of it going by in a town with such sleepiness.

Out of nowhere, small gangs of children would ambush me. Pale faced little girls and bouncing little boys. Their faces were smiling and enthusiastic, but up close their clothes were grubby, their faces dirty and their noses were running in the cold temperatures. It triggered my mind back to a sign I had seen earlier in the town centre:

Children Belong in Schools, Not in Prisons. A Child Employed is a Future Destroyed.

There was an invigorating and fresh crispness to the mountain air, which bordered on the chilly in a cool wind if you paused for too long. A small boy in a dark green Pakistani cricket shirt emerged and followed me to the point where we had walked too far from where he knew.

The road was rough and narrow for vehicles. These were avalanche-scarred slopes, and the occasional distant rumbling noise indicated why. The white jagged teeth of the Hindu Kush revealed themselves to me more sharply in the distance. I was up for the challenge of a strenuous trek.

Then some new little friends emerged, playfully running around me and took great delight in showing off when my camera came out. But then they also disappeared and I proceeded further upwards.

The river below and mountains above remained constantly serene belying the fact that they were both violent products of nature on an epic scale. The icing cake peak of Tirich Mir was a distant constant, while a thin grey strip of the town's airport runway in the foreground looked miniscule in a Legoland sort of way. The town buildings of Chitral now looked like a picturesque toy town.

However, roughly halfway up the mountain, I became aware of a white jeep eating up the road behind me. After overtaking me, it pulled over. Three men got out. They were offering me a lift. But before going anywhere, I was instructed to share their lunch with them - hot chapattis. In return I could only offer them water and some sweets.

We were on the fringes of Chitral Gol National Park. Amongst other things, it was potential snow leopard territory. I would have to keep my eyes peeled. Then again, watching wildlife was not a great priority as I looked down at alarmingly steep precipices barely an arms length away from my window.

We climbed above the snowline, which made for even more dangerous and dramatic driving. The higher we went the deeper the snow and the more unpredictable the road. There was the odd heart-in-mouth slide or skid.

Although it was all in a day's work for these guys, who chatted away. Travelling in this manner was something I was adjusting and becoming accustomed to. Occasionally I dreamt of a snow leopard suddenly rushing out from the white fringes to ambush us.

We went off road as the slope flattened out onto a shallow summit, which was where the old abandoned fort survived in a state of ramshackle disrepair. The men worked for the local telecom company. What a job. They seemed to be on their way to the top to repair some wires and do some testing.

Well they certainly had enough phone lines, and no worries about getting a signal, to call a lift back for me if I really needed one. While they fiddled and fixed, I set off to survey the splendid views. On the other side of the mountain the Hindu Kush continued onwards in white forbidding breathlessness to the imposing terrain of Afghanistan. Where I had originally come from, the Chitral river valley looked even tinier and more remote like something from an aeroplane.

Shadows of shade on the mountains across the river valley expanded and started to merge. The warm winter sun diminished and the mountain chill crept in. I didn't wish to find out how frightfully cold it might become here at night time. Some very welcome hot tea was produced from straight off a wood fire on my return.

To my pleasant surprise on the way back down we stopped to take a detour on foot in search of wildlife. Rashid, perhaps the most senior of the group, took the lead, setting off down a steep path at a fierce pace with his binoculars. We seemed to be going bird watching. It was most definitely my first opportunity to do any bird watching in Pakistan. Birds of both varieties were not in great public abundance.

I saw a rare heron though, before arms started to be waved and excited whispers exchanged. As we all came to a dramatic halt, Rashid and the others were starting to get very excited. The binoculars were passed around and there was plenty of pointing. Was there a snow leopard out there, I optimistically wondered.

But for the life of me, even after several strained attempts through the binoculars I simply could not see anything of note against the rockily barren sloping mountain terrain. I was the odd one out. It was incredibly frustrating because everyone else was conversing in feverish whispers about some far away animal that continued to disguise itself brilliantly from my vision.

A decision was taken for us to try to approach much closer so I could get a better view. The same processes were repeated. Plenty of pointing. Lots of binoculars adjusting. More excited whispering. It was no good. We would have to move even closer due to my blindness.

Then all of a sudden there it was. The shape of the body made perfect shape, heavy bodied and thick set. In fact there were two of them patrolling across the slope. They weren't snow leopards though. They were Himalayan Ibex with magnificent curved horns.

Rashid pointed to his chin, then to the Ibex. He didn't speak a word of English but I could understand what he was trying to convey.

"Pakistani!" he joked.

The Ibex had thick woolly beards just like some Pakistani men.

"Pakistan Zindabad!" I replied.


The noise of our laughter disturbed the animal and it was off.

Sadly, the last remnants of daylight started to close in very quickly and with it a plummet in temperature, so we had to make our way jollily back down the mountain in near darkness.

When I made it back into a darkened Chitral, I stopped in at a cosy looking teahouse. It was showing cricket on the television. England were playing Pakistan in a one day international. For a change Inzamam was not batting.

I glanced at the screen to see how much they were losing by this time. But lo and behold, England were in severe danger of winning a cricket match in Pakistan. It was worth ordering several more glasses of tea for.

In fact, I had discovered that tea generally had to be ordered at least two or three times anyway while the cricket was on to ensure it would eventually arrive. Or maybe this was related to the unexpected cricket result.

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